Panel examines obstacles facing tourists from FSU

Knesset's Immigration and Absorption Committee examining procedural hurdles FSU families must undergo for tourist visas.

It took Yuli Kosharovsky eighteen years leave the Soviet Republic and immigrate to Israel in 1989. On Monday, he told Knesset Members that it has taken him nearly five months to receive a visa for his daughter to pay him a short visit. The Knesset's Immigration and Absorption Committee began holding meetings to examine the procedural hurdles that families from the Former Soviet Union [FSU] must undergo for tourist visa when they received letters from a number of FSU immigrants about their struggles to receive visas to bring family and friends to Israel. When he was a Prisoner of Zion, Kosharovsky was featured in various media outlets, including the Jerusalem Post, where his plight was popularized in the 1980s. On Monday, he turned to MKs to help battle what he called the "growing problem of discrimination against Jews from the former Soviet Republic." For years I fought to come here because I believed in this country, in what Israel could be," said Kosharovsky. "Now I am treated as a criminal for wanting to invite my daughter for a ten day trip to Israel." Kosharovsky's daughter, Sonya, has already been to Israel once before for during a month-long trip. When she told him that she was interested in returning, he began making arrangements by visiting the Ministry of the Interior and requesting a tourist visa. Kosharovsky said that he had to return to the ministry several different times and make appointments with a variety of clerks there. "Even when I went to the Ministry I was given the run around by everyone," said Kosharovsky. He described how he was told to bring 13 documents, proof that he was the father, and an original birth certificate with a notary signature. "They made me feel like I was trying to bring in a criminal, I was so shocked, just shocked," said Kosharovsky. Fed up with Israeli bureaucracy, Kosharovsky finally decided to apply directly to an Israeli consulate in Russia to receive a visa. Through connections there, he was able to receive a visa within a few days. "I happened to have connections, to know people, but what about all those Russian immigrants who don't have connections, who don't speak Hebrew?" asked Kosharovsky. "They don't deserve to have their families visit?" Unlike visitors from Europe and North America, Israeli consuls in FSU countries, acting on the instructions of the Interior Ministry, can require applicants for tourist visas to prove their familial relationship with Israeli citizens, their financial independence and their intention to return home. In some cases, FSU immigrants in Israel must submit applications of invitation on behalf of their relatives and friends, which can take several months and cost hundreds of shekels, and sometimes include posting a bond of several thousand shekels. Even tourist visa applicants who are eligible to make aliya are sometimes required to go through this process, although it is usually shorter for them. MKs expressed outrage at Kosharovsky's story, and several Russian MKs remarked that they had heard similar tails from friends and family. Even the Committee Chairman, MK Michael Nudelman (Kadima), said that he had used personal connections to arrange visas for his friends and family to come visit from the FSU. "It is a blatant racist policy that discriminates against certain citizens," said Nudelman. "It makes me embarrassed for this country." Representatives from the Interior Ministry and Foreign Affairs Ministry apologized to Kosharovsky for the difficulties he faced, but added that they were limited by red tape. "We do everything possible, but we have thousands of requests and a small staff," said Sassi Katzir, a representative from the Interior Ministry. "Mistakes happen.. what happened here never should have happened." When asked what needed to be done, Katzir explained that "certain policies need to be changed" and the ministry needed a larger staff for dealing with visa requests. MK Sofa Landver, a representative of the Israel Beiteinu Party which champions Russian immigrants, promised that she would not vote for the 2007 until the problem of visas to FSU citizens was resolved. "Along with several other MKs I can form a sufficient block to stop the 2007 budget in the Finance Committee where I am a member," said Landver. "This issue is so important to me that I am willing to do whatever it takes to see justice done." Landver added that the State of Israel could be making millions of dollars on tourism from citizens of the FSU, but that it had chosen to discriminate against people from those countries due to "racist" policies.